Choleric is one of the four cornerstones of humorism. Also called the humoral theory, this system of medicine attempted to explain many of the conditions that could affect the body. Though Ancient Greeks and Romans were the primary cultures that used this system, the four humors inspired many medicinal and psychological systems throughout the world.
According to the most popular theory of humorism, there are four temperaments or humors: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. Those who subscribed to humorism associated each humor with a bodily fluid and a range of health conditions, as well as abstract concepts like the four elements, nature, the seasons, and personality traits. For proper health, a person’s humors needed to remain in balance.
In early systems of humorism, a choleric person had an excess of yellow bile. This excess produced aggression, which could then damage the liver and lead to greater humoral imbalances. Some Greek physicians also believed that choleric people would develop greenish or yellow skin, a condition we now recognize as jaundice.
Ancient humoral theory physicians thought that the humors were products of hepatic digestion. The body transforms food into chylous, which then becomes chymous, which consists of the four humors. This fluid then circulates through the body. However, external factors could affect the system and trigger many issues. For example, living in an incredibly hot region could increase the amount of yellow bile in the body, rendering a person choleric and causing general weakness.
Various schools of Greek humorism had a major impact on Islamic medicine and led to the development of ideas and systems that some cultures continue to practice. These versions tend to have closer ties to the elements and tend to link more health issues to the humor. A choleric person has associations with heat and bitterness. Symptoms of this include high pulse rate, excessive thirst, burning sensations in the stomach, and fever.
European physicians continued to use humoral theories until at least the 1500s, though the belief persisted for longer in certain areas. Common medical practices at this time, such as bleeding and using hot cups, have links to humorism. Western doctors believed the spleen and gallbladder were responsible for yellow bile. They also thought that a choleric person would be red-haired, thin, and violent.
While we now recognize bile as an integral bodily fluid, there is no distinction between yellow and black bile. Additionally, while ancient physicians were accurate in tracing yellow bile to the liver and gallbladder, most of its effects are now considered pseudoscience. However, the humorism concept of each person having a unique temperament that could change due to their environment appeals to many people. This has led to modern psychologists utilizing the four temperaments in their work.
The original humorism systems viewed the four humors exclusively as bodily fluids. Galen, a philosopher and physician, believed that every humor affected a person’s personality. He attributed sharpness and intelligence to yellow bile. Future humoral theories would draw inspiration from this concept, though they tended to attribute different traits to each temperament.
After centuries of development, many psychologists and philosophers have taken the four temperaments and harnessed them for new systems. Examples of choleric temperament in these systems include:
For the most part, each of these systems recognizes the innate drive that a choleric person possesses. They tend to be extroverts who are decisive. A typical choleric individual might also be independent and ambitious. Many systems see them as natural leaders. However, these same traits may make them easy to anger.
Very few groups continue to use the word “choleric” when describing this temperament. However, the basic concept remains popular and many newer personality-describing systems rely on the four temperament theory. Two of the most popular are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Keirsey Temperament Scale. Both systems break each of the original temperaments into two roles with two types, creating a total of 16 personalities. Choleric people fall under the Rational temperament on the Keirsey scale, which correlates to the intuitive-thinking (NT) Myers-Briggs types.
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